Funny: Even though Jennifer Knapp is releasing her first album of new material in nine years and touring for the first time in seven — after what seemed to many observers like a pretty dramatic disappearing act — it's apparent that there are tons of other questions interviewers want to ask her before they get around to all of that. Says Knapp gamely, "The current joke out on the road is, 'You guys have heard I have a record out, right?' "
She's actually the one who changed the subject, and it was a prudent, pre-emptive and not a little courageous move on her part. In the middle of April, Knapp gave three print interviews, one to Christianity Today, a sizable evangelical magazine, one to The Advocate, a sizable LGBT magazine, and one to Reuters news service. Then she was promptly invited to go on Larry King Live.
The big, head-turning topic? In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Knapp sold a million records, won major industry awards and had a lot of devoted fans as a contemporary Christian folk-rock singer-songwriter. Before she put out her fourth studio album, Letting Go, she wanted to let people know — particularly those people whose theological stances against homosexuality might make them no longer want to listen to her music — that she's in a committed same-sex relationship, and happy about it.
For their sake and hers, that disclosure wasn't something Knapp took lightly. "I think especially in light of ... my sexuality, that was something that as a musician I wanted to at least have that kind of openness and to just continue that conversation," she says. "I mean, to me, there's nothing worse than being blindsided from something that you just can't live with. In respect to some of those [more conservative religious] communities that I participated at length with, I understood that that in particular is going to be just too much and wouldn't necessarily be — I don't want to say not welcome — but was just a conversation that many people weren't going to be able to enter into easily."
"Based on the evidence of the last couple weeks," she adds, "I'm starting to feel a lot more confident about the decision to do that. On the other hand, it's pretty much an unnatural one for me, because I'm really not that interested in talking about my private life."
As unnatural as it may be, Knapp, a Kansas native, seems to realize that all publicity is at least somewhat helpful publicity when you're trying to launch a comeback and head in a different direction. A lot has changed in the years since she got burned out, quit music entirely — as a career or a hobby — and ended up halfway around the world in Australia. Only once in that time did she get onstage, and even then it was at a friend's request and she went by "Jane Doe," played some cover songs and "shook like a leaf." Years of nonmusical soul-searching passed. Eventually, she was surprised to find that she could still write songs, still had the desire to express herself in that way, still wanted to see if anybody else might like them — and could actually envision confronting the challenges that would come with putting her songs and herself out there once again.
"I tend not to be surprised by too many things, because I don't usually make decisions without ... " Knapp trails off. "I'm a pessimist at heart, and if I can't imagine the worst-case scenario and being able to survive that worst-case scenario, then I usually don't say 'yes.' "
Knapp is back in Nashville and releasing Letting Go independently through mainstream, rather than contemporary Christian, channels — the new songs probably wouldn't fit so well in her old genre, anyhow. She's always had a confessional writing style that bears a resemblance to Natalie Merchant, the Indigo Girls and Shawn Colvin. (For the record, after playing Lilith Fair with those sorts of acts 10 years ago, she's been asked to do it again.) But she's more emotionally forthright now, willing to take up for herself — like she did on Larry King Live — and display bite when it's called for. Nowhere is that more clear than her agitated rock number "Inside." She spends the first verse steeling herself for public condemnation, then punctuates it with, "Well, who in the hell do they think they are?"
"The whole 'Oh, my God, she's back,' and everybody thinking and assuming that things were going to be status quo from the last time I left, was obviously something that I kind of had to deal with," Knapp says. "Better do it now rather than later and then have everybody be pissed off because they didn't get their favorite darling record that they were expecting."
So far, though, the touring hasn't exactly lived up to her worst-case scenario. "It's been a very humbling process to have the music kind of be wanted," she says. "You know, I go out and play the shows I've been doing, at least half the show is brand-new music, and you could hear a pin drop. I mean, everybody's really paying attention."
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